Association For Gravestone Studies Meeting

Have you ever wondered if there were other people who love cemeteries as much as you do? Have you ever wished that you could meet a bunch of them all at once and feel like you belonged?

Well, that wish can come true, my friend. Two weeks ago I went to the first meeting of the Florida Chapter for AGS. I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect, but I was at the last CRPT conference when a short meeting was held to see if there was any interest in starting a Florida chapter. Every person at the conference was interested. We all signed our names and info on a sheet to express our desire to start the chapter, and within a few months, it was done. Shelby Bender is our chapter president and not only did I recognize her at the meeting, but there were other people there from previous CRPT events. Because of that I felt comfortable right away an less like my shy, reclusive self.

When I got to the Alachua County Library in Gainesville I was about 30 minutes early. It was a chilly, overcast day and I walked two blocks to Starbucks to get something warm to sip on during the meeting. By the time I got to the meeting room there was a small queue of people waiting to sign in.

The library looks dull and beige-ly boring from the outside but the interior is gorgeous, with huge wooden beams overhead and a cool green color on the walls. It was a very soothing, grounding space and I thought regretfully of the 10 years that I spent in the Orlando Public Library, which always looked and felt like a prison to me. I know some people love Brutalist architecture and I think that’s great, so you go right ahead. The world needs all kinds of people.

There was a woman standing behind me in line as I waited to sign in and I turned to her and said, “This library is beautiful.” I was in awe of the meeting room, which had stained glass panels at the top of the room with a pattern that made me think of an eclipse. She smiled and agreed…and we’ve been talking ever since. I had met author and speaker Chris Kullstroem from Tampa, and I was in for an entertaining afternoon.

I was also thrilled to look up and see Keila and her fiancee walking in. I knew they were going to be attending the cemetery ramble afterward, but did not know they would be present at the meeting. We had to keep our chatter to a  minimum during the presentation but I’ll admit that I did pass a few notes. After the meeting and business at hand we met in Evergreen Municipal Cemetery for a walk and guided tour.

The cemetery covers 53 acres and was established in 1856 with the burial of a baby girl, Elizabeth Thomas, and then her mother 8 months later. She had given birth at 40, and I can only imagine what she went through in 1856. I actually did not know this at the time of our tour or I would have listened a little more carefully, but their marker is pictured below, carved by W.T. White. First burials are always a curiosity to me, since that seems to be what starts a cemetery most of the time, rather than land deeded or given specifically for that purpose. When the land was sold one acre remained a graveyard until the city purchased it in 1944, though there was a cemetery association in the 1890’s that managed the site. It now holds more than 10,000 people on it’s 53 acres, but Find A Grave lists a number in the nine thousands. The cemetery has a nickname, “The Wondrous Place”.

There are many notable burials here and our guide walked us through while telling story after story, but apparently one of our number was particularly offended by the fact that he left out a grave that she wanted to see, and she was pretty vocal about it. It was the grave of Robert Cade, the inventor of Gatorade. He had an unassuming grave near the roadway, and the guide pointed it out to her (it was so close we could read his name) but she continued complaining and at that point, I became offended as well. My cemetery zen only goes so far, apparently. It was the only thing about the day that irritated me.

We also learned that there was a notable stone mason who made several of the stones in the cemetery, W.T. White from Charleston, South Carolina. Headstones were delivered by bringing them along the coast and then up the St. John’s River to Palatka for delivery. I recalled hearing a similar story in St. Augustine in the Huguenot Cemetery about the headstones being made in Charleston and thought it was fascinating. White’s headstones can also be found in Tolomato Cemetery in St. Augustine. (See below.)

I also was very drawn to a headstone that said Our Mary, with a small, ghostly female image carved out of the stone. It had it’s hands held as if in prayer and a pale, pleading face tilted upward. It was simple and almost folksy in it’s style. I loved it.

I’d like to go back to this cemetery with just a couple of people so I could wander on my own and also check out all of the bells and whistles that they have- including an extensive audio tour with 38 places where you can listen to a recording about the person buried there. There is a tour brochure that you can download here.

All in all it was a great day with friends, and if you’re interested in joining your local chapter of the AGS or starting your own chapter please visit their website for more information. I’ll be cemetery hopping with Keila this spring, and reviewing one of Chris’s books on here soon, so there are adventures to look forward to. Also, is anyone going to head to that abandoned funeral home in Jacksonville with me or not? If you’ve been, please tell me. If you’ve been and were arrested for trespassing, please don’t comment. I don’t want to be anxious about going.







Tree Damage From Hurricanes

(The photos in this post were taken around 5 p.m. and aren’t great, so I apologize. I picked the best examples in a cemetery that was mostly brown and flooded with slanting light. Better luck next time, eh?)

At the first Crypt conference I went to the guest speaker was a park ranger from the gorgeous Kingsley Plantation in Jacksonville, Florida. Her speech was about a small African American cemetery that was found on the property with 8 people buried there, most of them children. All of them were slaves. 

The story was touching enough because of the loss of several children, as well as the always painful tie to slavery. The other part that really disturbed me was that one of the men buried there had such severe damage to his bones that he was unable to walk upright before his death. They said much of it would have been caused by the physical labor he did during his lifetime, and that he would have been in a horrible amount of pain. His teeth, the speaker noted, were filed to points. All of these people were buried under a large, patriarch oak tree. The tree itself served as the marker for those buried there with the roots holding them together as one community, even in death. I loved thinking about that. 

I personally love visiting cemeteries with large trees on the grounds, but they can also cause a lot of damage when they fall. I’ve been so thankful that during the hurricanes the cemeteries I love most did not have trees falling and breaking headstones. If they fell, they miraculously seemed to fall away from the stones for the most part.

We were recently at Sanksville Cemetery in St. Augustine and there was a lot of tree damage from Hurricane Irma. Several had dropped large limbs, but several had fallen over, exposing roots. One had pulled two headstones from the 1880’s up with it as it fell and the ground had pulled up around the base of the tree, like someone pulling on skin. I was definitely concerned about how they would be able to restore the headstones to their proper place after removing the tree and what they might find when they started working. 

This cemetery is an historic African American graveyard dating back to the 1869 and is still an active cemetery today, with newer burials in the back. It has multiple veterans, deacons, and church pastors buried there and is a fascinating place to visit. The older burials are in the front, and the stones are simple, but beautiful and in good condition. 

The problem with fallen trees is that they can sometimes move bodies with them. In a cemetery this old it’s unlikely that the people who do the cleanup will find anything, but sometimes they do. You have to look at the roots first and then In the hole created when the tree fell. It’s a scary thing to consider when you find a tree down in a graveyard and you’re the first one there to go peek. 

Trees also manage to consume headstones and markers as they age and grow, and while it’s fascinating to see, there have been many headstones that I’ve wanted to see that were almost completely covered by a growing tree. Charleston’s Unitarian Churchyard had a few examples, but that cemetery is so beautiful I was in total awe the entire time I was there. 

If you get a chance to visit Sanksville it’s a bit of a drive from the city center, but worth it. You can find it by the historical marker on the main road, and it appears to be adjacent to residential property, but no one said anything to us and it isn’t marked as private. Clean up work is in progress, and I was very happy to see that. 

If you ever find exposed remains or coffins/caskets in a cemetery notify the local sheriff’s office. Protocol is for them to go out with a coroner to determine the age of the remains, though that doesn’t always happen. But still, report it. You can always call the cemetery owner as well. 

CRPT Review

St. Augustine is one of my favorite cities, so a couple of years ago when I heard that the next Cemetery Resource Protection Training was going to be held there I knew I’d be first in line when the registration started. The first CRPT I went to was in Deland 2 years ago and we worked in the beautiful Oakdale Cemetery, which reminded me of a tiny version of Bonaventure. The class was fairly small for that one, maybe 30 of us. This time there were over 60 and not only had our numbers grown, but the curriculum did too.

After the first one I assumed that going again would just be brushing up on my skills and making sure I was still doing everything right if I was cleaning a headstone, stumbled across remains on a cemetery visit, or attempted to transcribe a marker. But this time I learned so much from so many different presenters that my head was spinning for days. Additionally, all of my cemetery visits in the last year had really paid off. I not only understood more, but I knew where most of the photographic examples of different graves came from because I’d been there to see them myself. That was a nice feeling.

The Florida Public Archaeology Network creates this workshop and many of the presenters come on their days off to take part. This is a very committed group of people, and it seems that the people taking the workshop have the same level of commitment to their cemeteries. Some were cemetery owners, some were caretakers for church cemeteries. There were genealogists there, and members of various historical societies throughout Florida. And of course there were lots of scholars and preservationists, so it was in incredible mix of people and I learned a lot just from talking to others. Our name badges had our affiliation on them so it was easy to tell who belonged to what group. I didn’t have the blog name on my badge, in fact I only mentioned it once when I exchanged cards with someone.

This year was also different because I now have an emotional investment in Page Jackson Cemetery and all of the ensuing drama taking place around that 11 acre plot of land. Everything that I learned I was mentally applying to that cemetery, and as a result my volunteer buddies and I met up afterward and came up with a workable game plan for the next 4-6 months. It thankfully doesn’t include land clearing, weed whackers, or chain saws. While those things are important, we have come to realize that there’s really only so much that can be done and it’s the people there that matter most, so that will be our focus. (We were fortunate enough to meet at The Stranded Sailor pub in Sanford- if you’ve never been it should definitely be on your list!)

The conference took place on the gorgeous Flagler College campus and our cemetery day was spent in two of the town’s precious and well-cared for cemeteries. The Huguenot Cemetery was established in 1821 for Yellow Fever victims, and the Tolomato Cemetery, which has the oldest marked grave in Florida from 1797. The highlight of the morning for me was being able to go into the cemetery chapel there, which I’ve always wanted to see. Like every mortuary chapel I’ve been in this one definitely had that same feeling of dead space that I’ve mentioned in previous blog posts, and it smelled like salt water and old plaster and had gently peeling walls. Of course I absolutely loved it.

Afterward we took a trolley ride past multiple burial spaces in the city, which was fascinating. Plus we completely filled the trolley! I had imagined a trolley draped in black like Lincoln’s funeral train, but we had a shiny bright model in green and an amazingly skilled driver who could navigate the tiny streets downtown like a champ.

At the end of the conference we signed our names to an interest sheet to start a Florida chapter for the Association for Gravestone Studies or AGS. I am very excited about this, and hope to get to their conference next year.

If you’ve never been to this conference and love cemeteries please try to get to the next one or to one of their smaller workshops during the year. You can follow them on Facebook to get information about upcoming events.

Also- if you love reading about things like this- you might like this blog. A bit of death, a bit of glamour…it’s a gloomy girl’s best friend!

Upsala Swedish Cemetery in Sanford, Florida

I’m going to start by saying this land is for sale, which is the one thing guaranteed to make me freak out when it comes to historic cemeteries. It’s not cheap either; the listing price is $225,000 and they say it could potentially hold a 6000 square foot church facility. I’m not so sure about this though. The site is small, and used to be the location for one of the Swedish churches in the area (there is another one just down the road that you can see) but of course it burned down to the ground as these beautiful old buildings are wont to do. The Swedish came here to work on the citrus groves as part of Henry Sanford’s enterprising vision. The church on this site was called the Scandinavian Society Lutheran Church. There was also a meeting house and a small cemetery for what is considered the largest Swedish community in Florida at that time.

Churches in the late 1800’s were built for small communities and the churches were small too, not like the behemoths built for today’s modern congregations. Modern churches seem to need a gigantic place for kids, a teen center, a cafe, and a place for meetings like AA, Al Anon, and, Financial Peace University. I’ll be honest and say that I’m never comfortable going to these gigantic complexes because I feel like I’m headed to a rock concert rather than…church. With that said, this is not a property that could house that kind of facility plus parking. It has beautiful old oak trees and the property is deep but not wide. The cemetery is in the back, and it’s extremely overgrown. Find A Grave says there are 42 burials.

When I first heard about this cemetery I was told that when I got there that I should bend over and look under all of the bushes that I was able to get near. I thought this was really odd, but when I marched in that day in my boots I was determined to do it to see what my informant had been talking about. And she was right. The bushes had at one time been ornamental plantings on the graves- but now they were as tall as I am and huge. I bent over to look at the base of one, pushing a few branches out of the way, and I saw a couple of headstones. The shrubs had grown up around them and then overtaken them. After that I was creeping around bent double like I was having a hard day of cramps, trying to look into all of the shrubbery. There were more obscured headstones everywhere I looked.

This cemetery backs up to a subdivision and someone has made a well used path into the cemetery where they’ve created a sort of outdoor man-cave. There was a little trash, mostly cans and snack wrappers, and a few plastic chairs and a stone bench set up in a kind of circle. Somebody hangs out here a lot. I wonder if they might bring a rake sometime and get to work.

The cemetery also has an area that is full of thick ferns and there is lots of kudzu and vines in the trees. The property itself is magical and I sincerely wish that I could buy it and just restore the cemetery and call it a done deal. And believe me, there was a part of me that reasoned that I don’t have a mortgage payment and why not just buy it, but I know better.

So I’ve decided I’m going to ask Santa for it this year instead.

There is a lot of information about this community online and also a few nice historical markers in the area, so it’s worth a visit. You can’t miss the gigantic for sale sign at the front of the property, just park and then walk straight back. I’d advise boots though and be cautious about bees if you’re going to paw through bushes looking for headstones.

On June 1st I’ll be in St. Augustine for the CRPT conference on cemetery preservation and I am SO excited! The one I went to 2 years ago is what prompted me to start this blog so I hope after this one I’ll be motivated to start a podcast (thanks @collegeparkmom!), buy my own cemetery, write a book, or something else industrious. If you’re local and you want to go I believe there is still space left and it’s a 2 day conference for 60 bucks. You can’t beat it for everything that you’ll learn.